Wednesday, July 18

Finding Creativity: The Path Of One, Some, And Many

Author Geoff Livingston published an interesting conversation starter yesterday. It weighs individual creativity against groupthink merit. He cites collaborative cultures repeal creativity as part of it.

His post struck a chord with me for two reasons. The most obvious reason: because I've invested the last 26 years of my career playing in the "one, some, many" field of communication despite being one of those quiet, introverted people he talks about. The least obvious reason: I'm struggling with the creative-collaborative dilemma on one of many projects I'm involved in right now. And it's a killer.

Before I share the dilemma, let's define the terms. What is "one, some, many" creativity anyway?

The Creativity Of One. 

This is the genesis that Livingston is talking about in his post. It's an individual who, regardless of what other people are doing, quietly and deliberately dreams something up. You know ones/individuals who do it too.

They are every creative person for whom history has preserved a place. Authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac. Photographers like W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus. Artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Musicians like John Lennon, Gustav Mahler, Poly Styrene. Business people like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson.

Sure, some could argue that they weren't alone. Several of these creatives were inspired, influenced, or received input from other people too. So what? Individual creativity doesn't necessitate isolation from the world. It means you capture a unique perspective and are the master of how you present back.

Individual creativity is where I feel most at home, even if I rarely have time to explore it. It was how I wrote The Everyday Hound, produced Ten Rules Every Writer Needs To Know, and created The Last To Know (scroll down for the mention), an interactive literary piece for an art exhibition in 2000.

It's a very scary place to be until you learn to be fearless. Once you're done, people accept it or reject it. But even if they reject it, you have to remember that you are the only person who can validate it. Art doesn't need popularity to be art. It doesn't even need popularity to be "good" art. Art is art.

The Creativity Of Some. 

This is where I spend most of my time and it's a mixed bag. Mostly, creative people spend time when they cannot do (or don't have time to do) everything that needs to be done alone.

When we interview bands at Liquid [Hip], we often ask how they compose and collaborate. And while their answers are as varied as the music, most of them work just like people do in the commercial field. Somebody on the team comes in with a concept. Everyone else builds onto it, but anything that strays too far from the vision is abandoned.

When the work comes together brilliantly, it is one of the most rewarding experiences in the field. It's sometimes more rewarding than going solo because the enthusiasm for the outcome is shared. Teamwork rocks when you have the right marriage.

But that is the rub. The marriage isn't always one of your choosing. It's arranged. And as an arranged marriage, you don't always know who you will marry or how long it will last. The relationship could last a lifetime or it could be over in a few short and painful hours. It depends on the people and sometimes quantum physics. People carry a lot of baggage around, from apathy to egotism in any creative field.

All the while, someone else — whether it's a publisher or client or label — is busy taking notes and is ready to move in ideas. And that's when things become even more dicey; novices with big concepts.

The Creativity Of Many.

If you ever want to expedite the path toward groupthink, be successful without balls or be talentless with the need for a built-in excuse. While some of the most visible global social campaigns I've worked on were orchestrated on the creativity of many scale, the trumpet of togetherness hits many bad notes.

While Livingston is right, creativity needs circulation or else the artist will be missed, it doesn't mean the master is the masses. Classic works are often unpopular before they become timeless. And popular works are frequently elevated to their own eradication. Crowds are fickle beasts until they know better.

As much as many social networks and program developers have been waving around the "creativity of many" mantra as the new Kool-aid, I can't help but notice that the most successful social platforms listen the least. They have become so standard that people use them even when the networks abuse them.

Meanwhile, the graveyards of dead, buried, and long-forgotten networks that used to populate the net are attracting a steady stream of ghouls on their last breaths. The most common cause of these catastrophic illnesses is adding an abundance of crowd-sourced features someone could not live without.

It's not always the masses who do the deed either. By committee creativity is often an oxymoron when the marriage is made up of more than one partner or no definitive head of household. In a strategic setting, we might illustrate a big arrow pointing one direction with thousands of little arrows pulling in whatever direction suits them.

Trust me here. Great platforms are not crowd-sourced. They are either the work of one or the healthy marriage of a team much like a band. The audience might be invited to make requests, but the real talents know which songs not to cover. That kind of crowd participation only works in karaoke bars.

All Three Are Manageable, But Not Simultaneously.

It might seem like I'm down on the whole crowd-sourced creation thing, but that's not true. The secret is that whatever creativity path you've set out on has to have a purpose, with everyone in agreeance.

Then people have to be honest and to stick to it. You can tell who doesn't. Bands break up all the time, which has no reflection on their individual talents. Many go off to launch better solo careers or develop new relationships that elevate them to the next level. The same holds true in the commercial field.

My project dilemma is exactly that, it changes creative paths like Bartholomew Cubbins changed hats. The first three marriages were golden, but the fourth was rather rocky because the programmer was a solo artist despite saying the opposite. It tipped the entire job in an odd direction of crowd-sourcing.

And that's fine, I suppose, if you like pop karaoke with hard rock drums, and the manager taking country song requests from whatever audience happens to be in the room. It does make me wonder though. Where are the programmers who enjoy playing in a band (besides their own) without the new accountability crutch of crowd-sourcing? We need more Warhol and Basquiat collaborations.
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